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How To Negotiate Flexibility After Maternity Leave
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Lori Mihalich-Levin
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As a new mom, you may be thinking: there’s no way my old work hours are going to be possible anymore. I can’t get to the office early and still drop my child off at daycare. And I can’t stay until 11pm like the gunners down the hall. Nor do I want to.

But how should you go about asking for the flexibility you need to make this working parent thing work? The best way to think about this conundrum is to view it as a business negotiation. One that will have rewards both for you and for your employer.

There are countless ways to incorporate some level of flexibility, remote work, reduced hours, and phasing back into work after maternity leave into your life. I know not all of these are options for everyone, and some roles have more rigid schedules than others. But with the rise of telework, flexibility is expanding. If some form of flexible schedule is in fact a possibility for you, I hereby offer you a dare: to breathe and grow into a schedule that works both for your employer and for you.

My Returning-to-Work Story

When I was pregnant with my first child, I had a boss who literally said of my maternity leave, “Take what you need.  E-mail me what you want your phase-back-in schedule to look like.”  My first thought was thrill – at the generous possibility of crafting my return. But then terror at what was “acceptable” to ask for. 

I wound up asking for and taking 20 weeks of maternity leave (at the time, my employer offered only 1 week of paid parental leave, but I had sick and vacation time for the rest). I also phased back into work for the first month, by working slightly longer days each week. The short days definitely helped me work out the kinks with daycare drop-off and pick-up logistics, and allowed me to adjust to being away from my baby.  

Post-Maternity Leave

Two things I retained from that first maternity leave, though, were working from home on Fridays and leaving work at 4:30pm every day (no matter what!) to go pick up my kids from daycare before it closed. I had this arrangement for over 4 years, and it worked for me and for my employer. One reason it worked, though, is that I was willing to be flexible with my flexibility. 

At one point, for example, I was leading a team for a few months that could only meet on Fridays. So I stopped my work-from-home-on-Fridays plan for about 6 weeks to accommodate the needs of the team, and picked it back up again as soon as we were able to move the team meetings to other days of the week. And when I have the occasional evening work commitment, my husband and I work out an arrangement (when my kids were smaller, this usually involved having one of our daycare teachers come over to help with bed and bath time so we have two adult sets of hands in the house!) so that I can go.

What I'm Doing Now

I've since left the employer where I went on maternity leave with both children, and I'm now a partner at a law firm on a 60% schedule. I negotiated this arrangement as part of my offer (given that I wanted to devote the other 40% to my business, Mindful Return, and to my kiddos), and it's been working out well. In general, I work for the firm Mondays through Thursdays, with a hard stop at 4:30pm to get my kids, and I don't work for the firm on Fridays. Again, I'm flexible with my flexibility though - if a client needs something on a Friday, of course I help out. (And then make it up to myself another day!)

How to Ask for Flexibility After Returning to Work

So how to pop the question of asking for some flexibility? This varies by employer and by supervisor, of course, but try these steps, whether you’re still pregnant, out on leave, or already back:

1. Dare to dream. 

Sit down with a pen and paper, and brainstorm all the things you could ask for.

2. Do your homework to inform this dreaming phase. 

Talk to other working parents at your place of employment to see what their arrangements are.  (And if you’re in a billable hour world, find out what part-time options really mean.)  You may be surprised at what flexibility your colleague have been able to negotiate for themselves. And if the results of this environmental scan aren’t encouraging, don’t write off your own ask anyway. Everyone’s supervisor is different, and there’s a first time for every arrangement.

3. Decide what you will ask for. 

And commit to yourself to making the ask.

4. Remember that the arrangement will benefit your employer too.  

Be sure to articulate the reasons why this arrangement benefits them, too. (Check out Asking for Flex: It’s a Business Negotiation, Not a Personal Favor.)

5. Find a good, quiet time to have a conversation with your supervisor. 

“Hey, can I talk to you for a minute” while she’s darting off to lunch, probably won’t be the most effective way to make your case. Get some time on her calendar.

6. Start the conversation by focusing on your and your supervisor’s shared commitments in the workplace.  

You are much more likely to engage your supervisor and her interests if you commit to quality, punctual work.  AND commit to a balance that will help you live your work and family lives well. For example, ask questions like "how can I best help the team move forward as I transition back," and "how can I best help YOU with your current priorities during the transition" - all of which illustrate your commitment.  

7. Be calm. Be peaceful. Be flexible. 

You may not get a yes the first time. Consider this conversation as the beginning of an ongoing dialog with your supervisor about your life-with-family work schedule – not an all-or-nothing, once-and-done talk.  In this vein, consider asking for flexibility on a trial basis (perhaps for 3-6 months), to be re-evaluated after a few months. Your supervisor might be willing to commit to something temporary as a trial run. 

Asking for Flexibility: The "Why"     

Why dare to ask? Your sanity. And your family’s. You can’t know what you might get unless you ask. 

Check out our maternity leave checklist for more advice.

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Lori K. Mihalich-Levin, JD, is the founder of Mindful Return, author of Back to Work After Baby: How to Plan and Navigate a Mindful Return from Maternity Leave, and creator of the Mindful Return E-Course. A partner in the health care practice of a global law firm, she also is mama to two beautiful red-headed boys. Lori holds a law degree from the Georgetown University Law Center and completed her undergraduate studies at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

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